If you’re the right age to have owned a Genesis back in the early ‘90s, you might remember the system’s weird little secret: its most famous games were rarely its best. The Sega Genesis Mini, which comes out on Sept. 19, highlights that fact. Yes, Sonic the Hedgehog, Ecco the Dolphin, Altered Beast, Eternal Champions and ToeJam & Earl are on here. Yes, they’re still as disappointing as they were almost 30 years ago, ranking from the fine but overrated (Sonic) to the almost entirely lifeless (Beast and Champions). As always with the Genesis, you have to move past the hype to get to the games that are most worth playing.
There are a number of legitimately good games developed by Sega on this microconsole, and more that were published by the company but designed by outside studios. But the best games now, as then, weren’t developed by Sega. Konami gave us Castlevania: Bloodlines and Contra: Hard Corps, two of the best titles from those series. Sega published Gunstar Heroes, Light Crusader and Dynamite Headdy, but all three were designed by a group of disgruntled Konami developers who started Treasure in 1992. Beyond Oasis, again published by Sega, came from the studio Ancient, who had previously helped on Streets of Rage 2 and the Master System and Game Gear ports of the first Sonic game. Two of the best action games on the system, Alisia Dragoon and Strider, came to us from GameArts and Capcom, respectively. Two of Westone’s fantastic Wonder Boy / Monster World games made the cut, namely Wonder Boy in Monster World and Monster World IV. Shining Force, a tactical role-playing game, was made for Sega by the studio that would eventually create Golden Sun, Mario Golf and Mario Tennis for Nintendo—and give the world the character of Waluigi. Nintendo’s classic minis could have stuck entirely to first-party games like Mario, Zelda and Metroid and probably have been just as successful, but the Genesis Mini needed to reach out past Sega’s in-house studios to be a success.
Some of these games from outside developers were smash hits at the time and are as well-remembered today as any of Sega’s own games. Many of them still remain obscure in America, though. The Genesis Mini would be worth praising if all it did was reintroduce the hack-’n’-slash action of Alisia Dragoon and dungeon-crawling mystery of Light Crusader to modern audiences. Fortunately those are just two games in the generous 42-title lineup, and far from the most obscure. That honor would go to Darius, which is actually a fan-made port of Taito’s classic shoot-’em-up, or, bizarrely, Tetris. Yes, the most widely available videogame in the world appears here in previously unseen form through a Genesis port of Sega’s 1988 arcade version, which was only released in Japan. This mediocre take on Tetris is one of the two or three least essential games here, despite having perhaps the most interesting backstory.
That’s not to say Sega didn’t design any truly great games for the Genesis. The entire Phantasy Star series needs to be played by anybody who enjoys RPGs or epic adventures; the most famous Genesis entry, Phantasy Star II, isn’t here, but Phantasy Star IV, which might be the best and was definitely the least played at the time (because it cost $100 at release), is. Also present is the tremendous action game Shinobi III, the classic brawler Golden Axe (the first great Genesis game), and Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, a gorgeous platformer that probably would’ve been the system’s signature mascot game if it had starred an original character and not the most famous licensed property in the world. Unlike the Sonic games, which introduce speed as a single-faceted gimmick and then counterintuitively create large, sprawling levels that shouldn’t be rushed through, Castle of Illusion succeeds with consistently innoventive level design and an approach to platforming that’s simple and refined yet still challenging.
No matter how you feel about Sega’s in-house efforts, you’ll find more than enough games to love among the dozens that come on the system. You won’t find any of the sports games that were huge at the time, though. That means none of the early Maddens, no NBA Jam, no NHL ‘94, and none of Sega’s first-party sports games. In 1994 I hit over 60 home runs apiece with six different players from that classic Atlanta Braves dynasty in Sega’s World Series Baseball; unfortunately the Genesis Mini won’t let me relive those glory days with Justice, Gant, McGriff, TP and Blauser.
Other than the lack of sports, any Mortal Kombat game or multiple installments of any series outside of Sonic, there’s nothing to complain about with the games that made the cut here. These 42 titles include most of the games you’d absolutely need to have to give a good overview of what made the Genesis worthwhile, along with a variety of great but lesser known obscurities. Even the games that aren’t that great have a clear reason for being here—this version of Virtua Fighter 2 is terrible but such a curiosity that I’m glad it’s here, and Mega Man: The Wily Wars might be a hamfisted compilation, but it’s still cool to have the option to dip into the original NES Mega Man games while tooling around the Genesis catalogue.
Beyond the actual games, Sega knocked almost every other aspect of this classic console out of the park. Yes, you can save and reload at will, making a game like Ghouls ‘n Ghosts almost tolerable. The three-button controllers look and feel exactly like the originals, and although they aren’t optimized with six buttons for Street Fighter II: Special Champion Edition and Eternal Champions, you can buy a six-button model if you really want to. The cartridge slot and headphone volume slider move the way they did on the original console. The original menu music by Yuzo Koshiro is a straight banger. You can even change the location settings to Asia and Europe and access those versions of the games instead of the North American ones, complete with whatever differences originally existed between the different versions back then.
I’ll come clean: I never much cared for the Genesis. I owned one and played it heavily from 1992 to 1995 or so, but it never won my heart the way the TurboGrafx-16 did. In fact I only had a Genesis because of a too-long story involving a broken TurboGrafx-CD I got for my birthday and Babbage’s store credit that had to be used for something. The Genesis Mini makes me realize how many great games I was largely unaware of at the time, and forces me to rethink my decades-old opinions on Sega’s console. Instead of a too-’90s relic built more on attitude and marketing savvy than actual games—the gaming equivalent of Hypercolor shirts or those ads where neon-shirted skateboarder kids would blow some stuffy librarian’s mind with a gross toy or fruit-flavored candy—the Genesis did put up legit competition to the Super Nintendo. With the Genesis Mini, Sega one-ups Nintendo at its own game, releasing perhaps the best nostalgic microconsole that’s come out yet.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.